Brick Walls & Jellyfish

Brick Walls & Jellyfish

The truth is, you’re doing your level best to be a good parent. But you can’t shake off the feeling that your best is never good enough. At every turn there’s some self-appointed, psycho-babbling expert urging you to take charge, lighten-up, or sort out your miserable act. And you can’t stop comparing yourself to the Super-Parents you know – those legends in your neighbourhood, those heroes amongst heroes who (according to the stories) can leap tall dog-kennels in a single bound.

A guide for pooped parents

YOU DISCOVER THAT NOBODY – NOBODY! – GETS AS POOPED AS PARENTS. It’s as if kids know exactly how to get their own way. They stalk unsuspecting mums and dads like half-crazed animals, waiting until you’re on an important phonecall, or in the shower, or entertaining friends before embarking on their questionable activities or making their dubious requests. They observe you for hours, studying your weaknesses and choosing precisely the right moment to spring: “Can I have five dollars?” And, unbelievably, you hear yourself saying “Yes”!

Then, after a lousy week of car-pooling, impossible deadlines, parent/teacher showdowns, and expensive tutoring across the other side of town, you get woken on Saturday morning by a familiar voice: “How do you get super-glue out of the dog’s fur?”
Please, not in the weekend!

Are you ever thanked for your efforts? Of course not. And if you dare to exercise your “No” muscle or announce an unpopular decision, you get rewarded with (select one or more):

  1. a temper tantrum

  2. the sulks

  3. “You’re the meanest mother/father in the world!”

  4. the all-time favourite: “THAT’S NOT FAAAIIIRRR!”

Oh, my aching head!

The truth is, you’re doing your level best to be a good parent. But you can’t shake off the feeling that your best is never good enough. At every turn there’s some self-appointed, psycho-babbling expert urging you to take charge, lighten-up, or sort out your miserable act. And you can’t stop comparing yourself to the Super-Parents you know – those legends in your neighbourhood, those heroes amongst heroes who (according to the stories) can leap tall dog-kennels in a single bound.

Do YOU rate yourself a part-time flop as a mum or dad? Do YOU wonder if you’ll ever get it right? Well, be encouraged. Why? Well …

  1. You’re going to make mistakes. We all do. Don’t beat yourself up for that or abandon ship when the seas become turbulent.

  2. Kids are made of tough stuff. They’re uniquely capable of manoeuvring through even the craziest of childhoods and still turning out great. 

  3. The fact that you’ve picked up this magazine and are reading this article tells us that you love your kids enough to try and improve. 

  4. Take a moment, relax, and pat yourself on the back. This country’s full of parents who either don’t realise they need to improve – or don’t care!

  5. Over the next few pages we’ll try to answer questions you may have asked: “What am I doing right? What am I doing wrong? Where do my responsibilities begin and end?” 

So please keep reading …

Barbara Coloroso, in her insightful book, Kids Are Worth It, reveals two unsafe extremes in modern parenting:

THE BRICK-WALL FAMILY: In this family, parents demand obedience and rule by fear, and kids are taught at a very young age not to express their true feelings, their true selves. Spontaneous expressions of joy, concern and happiness – or anger, hostility and sadness – are stifled, because all feelings are stifled by the parents.

“When young kids in a Brick-Wall Family explore their environment, they’re slapped or yelled at for touching something, and told to quieten down and keep still. When they splash through a mud puddle just for fun, they’re told to get inside, clean up, and don’t ever do that again. As they try to comfort crying siblings, they’re warned to leave them alone.

“Since they rarely see their parents laughing and enjoying life, these kids rarely laugh and enjoy life themselves. Their feelings of anger, fear, sadness or hurt aren’t just stifled – they’re directly punished or denied: ‘Don’t stamp your feet, or I’ll smack you. Don’t talk to me like that, or I’ll wash your mouth out with soap. At your age you should be able to sleep with the lights out. You’re a scaredy-cat. Don’t cry, it was only a budgie. Big boys don’t cry. I’m going to keep smacking you until you stop crying and tell me you’re sorry. Get up – you didn’t fall that hard.’

Forbidden to express their emotions, these kids often get stuck, observes Coloroso. Their feelings build up inside, like steam pressure in a boiler, and can easily spill out in aggressive and destructive acts – against themselves (eating disorders, drug addiction, sexual promiscuity, even suicide) and against others (blaming, arguing, fighting, kicking the cat, child abuse, wife abuse, even murder).

She quotes some sad words from poet Steve Lynch:
god save the children
trapped in their game
living in fear
hiding the pain
battered by devils
screaming in vain
feeling the wrath
then doing the same.

THE JELLYFISH FAMILY: This family lacks any kind of structure, and is often created by parents who left Brick-Wall homes vowing, “I’ll never treat my kids like that!” Their children’s feelings are still stifled – but in a different way.

One species of Jellyfish Parents smother their kids, trying to feel all their feelings for them, discouraging them from facing their emotions, and protecting them from the consequences of speaking out: “Cheer up, it’s not that bad. Let’s get an icecream and forget all about it.” “I’ll call your friend and tell him you didn’t mean to hurt him. We’ll invite him over to play.” “Don’t cry about your goldfish, I know you meant to feed him. I’ve already got a new one for you.” “I know you didn’t mean to hit her. She shouldn’t have teased you.”

The other species just neglect their kids, leaving them fend for themselves, their feelings totally ignored: “Don’t bother me now – I’ve got enough problems of my own!”

“Since boundaries are few or non-existent in a Jellyfish Family,” says Barbara Coloroso, “the child gets confused about whose feelings are whose. He is overly aware of others’ needs at the expense of his own self-awareness. He learns that his feelings are not as important as other people’s.

“If the Jellyfish Parent constantly rescues the child from feelings and situations, the child learns to be dependent on others. She becomes helpless at solving her own problems, and quick to lay blame on others. Eventually the child begins to feel angry and resentful at not being listened to …

“If the parent abandons or neglects the child, the child learns to put aside or hide feelings … allowing no intimacy in his life … constantly seeking others to make him feel safe, loved and secure.” He risks becoming a hollow shell, a prime candidate for a cult, a gang, or an unhappy marriage. Or a world-class manipulator.

Sobering stuff, right? So how can we avoid these dangerous extremes? Well, take heart – it’s not impossible …


1. Safe Parents leave room for kids to be themselves

From birth onwards Safe Parents try to let their kids know (i) they’re a unique, one-of-a-kind little package … but (ii) they’re only human, and will often make mistakes … however, (iii) they are loved unconditionally, not based on their performance.

One of the most beautiful things a parent can hear from a kid is, “Sorry, I was wrong.” A child or teenager who’s able to admit mistakes is telling you he feels safe in his environment. He knows he can be himself – which will always be good enough for Mum and Dad.

Greg Cynaumon, author and family counsellor, recalls a 14-year-old girl who told him she didn’t belong at home. “When I pressed her for details, she revealed that her dad disapproved of her choice of friends. He disliked the fact that she smoked occasionally and had tried marijuana. He even told her she couldn’t go out with the family until her hair was restored to its natural colour – which wasn’t purple! 

“Her father was communicating a message that she was no longer acceptable in his eyes. And she felt confused. After all, wasn’t she the same girl she’d always been? She realised she shouldn’t have tried marijuana or dyed her hair. But how long would her banishment from the family circle last?”

Safe Parents understand that home is not just where the weeds are pulled – it’s also a welcoming place where kids can ‘land’ in stormy weather.

2. Safe Parents don’t make their love conditional

“Ve have vays of making you talk!” might be a good line in a movie, but it has no place in a safe home. Parents who dangle their love with a load of conditions attached, who dish out small rations of praise only when their kids qualify, are likely to produce kids who grow up resentful, fearful or rebellious.

You can ‘ground’ a child, restrict him to his room and take away his cellphone. But no punishment is more devastating than withholding your love. It’s like forcing him to wear a T-shirt with “I’m not good enough!” printed on the front, and “I’m not lovable!” on the back.

That’s not smart parenting – it’s child abuse! And the emotional scars often get passed down, like a chipped crockery set, from one generation to the next.

Safe Parents aren’t perfect parents. They naturally endure moments of embarrassment, or even shame, when their kids mess up. When your son gets caught shoplifting, or your daughter tells you she’s pregnant, it’s hard not to care about how others might judge you.

But Safe Parents work through their feelings of disappointment, then move on to tackle the child’s problem in a positive, loving way.

3. Safe Parents help kids handle their feelings

A mum asked Greg Cynaumon, “How can I get my six-year-old to talk about our divorce and the loss of his dad? I know it’s bugging him, but he just won’t open up.”

“I took a shot at the answer,” recalls Cynaumon, “by asking the mum if she ever just sits down with her boy and conveys her feelings about the divorce. ‘Do you ever tell him that YOU have been feeling sad and lonely yourself?’ ‘No,’ she answered. ‘I thought that would make him feel worse …’

“Kids need to hear and see feelings from parents in order to know how to express feelings of their own. Remember, small children are often unable to put their feelings into words. They may tell you they feel sick in the tummy when they’re really just nervous or anxious about something. If this mum had sat down with her six-year-old and told him how the divorce had affected her, it might have ‘freed him up’ to disclose his own feelings. 

“The same is true of dads. As a kid, I never understood why men didn’t cry. It was probably because I never saw my dad cry. I never saw John Wayne cry, either. And both of them were my heroes. It wasn’t until I had kids of my own that I realised how strange that was. Now I cry at movies, weddings, and when the last piece of cheesecake is gone!”

Safe Parents acknowledge their own feelings and label them: “I’m angry. I’m hurt. I’m upset. I’m happy. I’m sad. I’m frustrated. I’m concerned.” They don’t deny they’re sad when their eyes are filling with tears. They don’t deny they’re angry, then stomp out of the room.

And their kids get to learn: their own feelings are important … they don’t need to make excuses for feeling the way they do … and there are healthy, constructive ways to express those feelings.

Does this sound easy? It’s not – especially when your kid is throwing a full-blown tantrum, shouting, “I hate you! I hate you! You’re awful!” But, as Greg Cynaumon points out, “Though no parent enjoys hearing that their child hates him or her, it comes with the territory – just like a postie knows he’s going to get bitten sooner or later.”

4. Safe Parents keep the pipeline of trust flowing freely

Parents often confuse unconditional love with unconditional trust – but the two are complete strangers. Trusting your kids unconditionally is like giving them a free pass to exceed all limits and jump all fences.

Some kids will gladly accept a ‘blank cheque’ of trust if you offer it – but they have no idea of its true value. What was that old saying? “Give a kid an inch, and he’ll take your car keys.” However, for other, less secure kids, unconditional trust is a heavy burden – made even heavier by the fear of letting their parents down.

“Whenever I speak about trust,” says Greg Cynaumon, “I open with this statement: ‘Never ever trust your children unconditionally!’ Then, before the crowd turns ugly and mobilizes with tar-and-feathers, I explain: ‘Unconditional trust sounds like a terrific parenting technique, but it just doesn’t work. It’s like driving through a blinding storm without windscreen wipers – all visibility is lost. I’m not saying ‘Don’t trust your children.’ On the contrary, the goal should be to cement relationships based on mutual trust and respect. But do so with both eyes wide open!”

Says the mother of one teenager who “always did everything right” and was trusted completely – but, unknown to his parents, had a serious drug addiction: “We learned almost too late that it’s our responsibility as parents to check bags, cars and bedrooms occasionally. Make sure you know what’s going on with your kids. You’re only fooling yourself if you think the disease of addiction can’t strike your child. Don’t trust too much!”

Safe Parents are watchful parents. And real trust involves a two-step process:

  • Step one belongs to the parents. Picture trust as a door waiting to be opened. As parents, our job is to safely install and hang that door of trust (so our kids can reach it easily), give them a key, and show them how it works.

  • Step two is up to our kids. Teach them that responsibility is the key that opens the door of trust, and that the more responsible they become, the wider the door opens. (Warning: the door may need to slam shut for periods of time while a child rebuilds your trust through more responsible behaviour.)

5. Safe Parents reassure kids that weaknesses are normal

One of the best ways of making kids feel okay about their weaknesses is through some genuine parental ‘owning-up’. Kids need to hear that they aren’t alone with their problems. And empathizing, while admitting your own weaknesses in areas similar to theirs, makes you more human and approachable.

“My daughter came home from school one day,” confesses Greg Cynaumon, “with several maths assignments that were, quite honestly, horrible. She had obviously inherited my weaknesses – no, wait, complete ineptness – in maths.

“Some parents fear that admitting to similar shortcomings is like giving their kids a licence to fail. But I believe in being honest. So I told Tracy that I had failed basic maths, not once but twice, at university. I told her how much begging and pleading it took to convince the dean to accept my extra psychology courses in lieu of maths credits. She laughed when I told her how he had grown so weary of my whimpering that he allowed me to graduate.”

If your kids make a mistake, help them see it … own it … correct it … and then move on. After all, most of life is learned by trial-and-error.

6. Safe Parents teach kids about consequences 

One essential for balanced living is an understanding of cause and effect – the relationship between sowing and reaping. And Safe Parents will share these principles with their kids at a very early age.

This isn’t as easy to DO as it is to talk about (ask most parents). How many times can you recall threatening, “If you don’t eat your vegetables, you won’t get any dessert”? In families where the reaping-and-sowing principle has teeth, follow-through is the norm – no veggies, no icecream, period! But in families where the pushover-parent reigns, the child escapes the salad bar every time and goes straight to the dessert tables.

In addition to becoming a skilled manipulator, the child is learning to ‘play-off’ his parent’s desire to be a friend instead of a parent. As these kids mature, what started out as a contest to score some more icecream can blossom into a fully-fledged avoid-the-consequences habit.

What’s missing? The foundation of reaping-and-sowing, which teaches us to admit and take responsibility for our mistakes. 

7. Safe Parents encourage kids to tell the truth – even when it disappoints

If your children view you as a parent who’s likely to be unforgiving when they slip-up, then brace yourself: you may be in for a lifetime’s supply of “frequent liar” miles, because your kids will be afraid to tell you the truth.

It’s not just kids who struggle with this one, of course. For example, husbands: when was the last time you told your wife that her latest hairdo looked like a cross between Lady Gaga and Lassie? Never – right? (Not unless you were feeling suicidal that day.) And wives: when was the last time you told your husband that he needed to lose a few kilos? (OK, so that was a bad example …)

Children need to learn the importance of being honest. Telling the truth is not only right, it helps keep the conscience clean. And Safe Parents will make sure that lesson is taught well.

Of course, no parents likes surprises (unless it’s straight A’s). When your kid says, “There’s something I need to tell you,” a cold chill will always run down your spine. And if there are to be consequences, so be it. But don’t forget to celebrate the honesty of his act.

8. Safe Parents are willing to let go

It really is soooo unfair! Just when we’re getting the hang of this child-raising job, some busy-body starts urging us to nudge ‘em out of the nest. “What? You’re kidding! I’m just starting to LIKE the overgrown cookie-cruncher!”

Yes. We sympathise. But our kids aren’t ours – they’re ‘on loan’ to us for a few years. And Safe Parents accept that parenting is a temporary assignment. When the time is right, they must give their kids a chance to flap their wings and become airborne on their own. 

When should this process start? Well, kids mature at different rates – some sooner, some later. With some kids, you can begin easing off the ‘authority pedal’ when they’re 13 or 14 – but others continue to need more structure until they’re quite a bit older.

However, here’s a universal truth: one of the toughest parts of parenting is letting your kids have their first taste of independence. It’s hard shedding that built-in desire to protect them – regardless of their age or maturity.

“For me,” confesses Greg Cynaumon, “it happens whenever a boy shows up at my front door and wants to know if my eight-year-old daughter can come out to play. ‘No! She’s moved to Papua-New Guinea to live among natives. Go away!’

“We naturally to want to protect our kids from anything potentially dangerous or inappropriate. But we’ve all heard of the ‘over-protective parent’. I plead guilty. I’m one of the original worry-warts …” 

That doesn’t mean we should let them ‘crash-and-burn’ on their first solo flight. As their flight instructors we need to check their progress regularly and help them make any midcourse adjustments. But we can’t protect our children from everything. And we can’t keep them in the nest forever. As Safe Parents, we’ll let our kids grow – and GO – when they’re ready.

As American poet Carl Sandburg once wrote: “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.”

Author Greg Cynaumon offers these ‘Final Beliefs’:
  • I believe we have the power to make parenting a daily, painful grind – or immeasurable fun.
  • I believe we can worry ourselves to death if we get too wrapped up in our everyday parenting mistakes.
  • I believe that laughter, especially the laughter of a child, is one of the most precious commodities in the world – more precious than gold, and more rewarding than even beating your six-year-old at the latest video-game.
  • I believe that parenting is the most underrated, underappreciated and underpaid profession in the world.
  • I believe that your kids will one day look back on their childhood with fondness. They will recognize that you did your very best. They might even express their appreciation with a good, old-fashioned bear bug and a quick word of thanks. If not, don’t worry. I’m working on a new book: Ten Ways Ageing Parents Can Torment Their Adult Children! 
Keepers of the Vine